Leicester

Ye olde retail therapy: Shopping on history's high street

Napoleonic re-enactors Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo falls this month - but where do you go to dress the part?

Visit any castle, stately home or battlefield this summer and you may find a host of characters, from Romans to the Red Army, via Robin Hood, waiting to welcome you.

In bringing the past to life, these historical re-enactors need the right kit for the job, but just where do you buy a nice new corset or a cannon?

Fortunately, whether you are after axes or dried apricots, there are 1,000 years' worth of products for sale if you know where to look.

A thriving industry of fairs showcase a kaleidoscope of items you may have thought lost in the mists of time. Among their stalls you will find steampunk USB sticks and pirate cami-knickers. But why is there such a demand for this stuff - and who makes it?

The International Living History Fair is an Aladdin's cave of often strange-looking merchandise spanning 10 centuries.

Image caption A prospective customer is encouraged to take a medieval sword and "try it for size"

It is one of three major fairs in Leicestershire and Warwickshire which, along with dozens of smaller events, supply re-enactors (and interested members of the public) ahead of the summer display season.

On offer at the leisure centre-sized hall at Bruntingthorpe aerodrome in Leicestershire are items which it scarcely seems credible are still made, cheerfully for sale alongside cups of tea and sausage rolls.

Some are beautiful, some bizarre and many - especially the vast array of axes, maces, knives and muskets on offer - slightly terrifying.

Several stalls drip with terrifying sharp and heavy ironwork designed to make short work of even the best-armoured foe.

Arguably the most extraordinary is the longbow, a weapon of devastating potential.

"So why is it not illegal?" asks archer Tom Mareschall, his eyes glittering with passion for his girder-like bow.

"Skill," he explains. "Not many people can draw a longbow and no-one else" - he taps his chest - "can draw at 180lbs."

Image caption Contrary to appearances, longbows make Tom Mareschall a very happy man

The variety of goods is dazzling. As well as skull-smashing weaponry, there are clogs, earthenware pots, jewellery themed to Henry VIII's wives, 2ft-wide (60cm) wooden bowls, quills, medieval floor tiles, dried foodstuffs (for that expedition to the New World) and enough leatherwork to account for a small herd of cows.

Dave Allan, the event's organiser, says: "It's got two main purposes. One is for people to come along and buy things, and the traders to sell them.

"The other is educational: for people, from children up, to learn about history, to see it and touch it and really get enthusiastic.

"It's funny but loads of people here hated history at school but they have discovered a new side to it through making it come alive."

Image caption History's never-ending cycle of fashion provides rich inspiration for craftsmen and women
Image caption If you cannot find what you are looking for, many traders will make equipment to order

Enthusiasm is not in short supply but few can have the dedication of longbow disciple Mr Mareschall.

"I started aged seven. My left shoulder never formed properly because of the strain. I have six herniated discs in my back," he says.

"But when people say 'No one could draw a bow that powerful', I can prove it's possible".

And he is also handy should you want to know what damage an Agincourt-style longbow - which needs that crushing 180lbs (82kg) of "pull" - can do.

Image caption One stallholder boasts "If it goes bang, we can get it for you"
Image caption Guns capable of shooting require a shotgun licence and there are strict rules around storing black powder

"A good archer could get off 15 shots a minute," he explains.

"That's a rate of fire not matched until the outbreak of the First World War.

"At 100yds the arrows have the force of a .44 Magnum bullet. At 50yds they will go through modern soldiers' body armour."

On the question of legality, mercifully the axes and swords are blunt and the the bows are impractical to use for crime. But the watchword is common sense - the police would take a dim view of any being carried into a busy nightclub, for instance.

Muskets capable of firing a projectile require a shotgun licence as well as special permits for storing the black powder they use.

As well as the core business of supplying re-enactors, many craftspeople have worked with TV and film productions. Wolf Hall is mentioned several times, as is the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Image caption Vivid uniforms are some of the most eye-catching items

Della Rebours, who can knock you up clothing and uniforms from the past three centuries, has a particular claim to fame.

"I met Roland Rat, " she says with a smile. "Because I had to make a new Kevin the Gerbil. The old one got pinched.

"A friend of mine who works in TV rang up in in such a state and asked me to get sewing!"

Although there is a sad lack of 80s children's TV characters on offer, there are plenty of other curiosities.

Along with armour stands and the mysterious Battle Spoon (exact purpose unknown), wood specialists Club Axe Ltd offer folding medieval furniture and historical "glamping".

Owner Richard Cooper says: "Behind the scenes we have cars, not a horse and cart. So if re-enactors want to get their bed from show to show, it really helps if you can get it down to an manageable size.

"And we decided to move into the glamping as we had all the bits for medieval tents, so why not offer it to everyone as something a bit different."

And if that's not immersive enough, Italian group Sestiere Castellare offers castle-based medieval holidays (proudly boasting "medieval board games, brothel and torture instruments") in the Dolomite mountains.

Image caption Clogs (imported from the Netherlands) are marketed as "The best wet weather footwear invented"
Image caption The clientele, as the merchandise, is colourful and varied

While that sounds pricey, there is something for every budget, from £2.50 for an authentically-preserved packet of ginger to roughly £15,000 for a suit of armour.

Graham Ashford, an armourer from Greenleaf Workshop, is pushing the megabudget concept. He is involved in a project recreating the gilded armour of medieval poster boy (and son of 14th Century warmonger king Edward III) The Black Prince.

"At the moment we have no firm idea of how much it will cost, but we recently tracked down some hand woven silk and were quoted £3,000 a metre," he says.

"Clearly some people will wonder what on earth we are doing but it keeps these skills - very practical, very traditional skills - alive".

Image copyright Hats
Image caption Civilian clothing has at least as much representation as military garb at re-enactment fairs

Wonder or bewilderment is a natural reaction at the fair.

Stefan Pokorny, from Czech company Kasto Armouries, stands behind rows of helmets and breastplates, swords and axes.

"Why do people want this? I don't know. They like history. How many axes should someone have? I don't know. But they keep coming; they are happy to see and have them."


Longbow - weapon of medieval destruction

Made from a single piece of wood, traditionally yew, the longbow became famous on the battlefields of Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

It was most effective when used en masse to deliver volleys of thousands of arrows at ranges of up to 300m (330yds), overwhelming contemporary crossbows.

It was key to English victories at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415) where the hail of missiles tore into massed French knights.

The key to success was the training of archers from boyhood to handle the immense strain the bows put on the human body.

Gradually superseded by changing tactics and the arrival of gunpowder, hundreds of longbows were nonetheless discovered ready for action on Henry VIII's ill-fated ship Mary Rose, which sank in 1545.


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